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Blu-ray Review: United 93

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In the Fall of 2000 I began graduate school.  One of the courses I took in my first semester was a class on cinema related to the Holocaust.  For roughly eight hours every Friday I would sit there in class, watch movies, discuss readings, and talk about the subject.  As much as I learned in the class, and as great an experience as it was, it was like having an open wound that just got bigger and bigger with every passing week.  My second, and final, year of graduate school began in the Fall of 2001 and though I was taking difficult courses, I was thrilled not to have to deal with repeated images of this horrific event.  Instead, I—and the rest of the world—witnessed another horrific event over and over and over again that Fall. 

There is a discussion that wiser minds than mine can enter into about the ethics surrounding whether or not to represent such a cataclysmic event (and I would encourage you to ignore any argument that deals with said ethics over the course of a mere sentence or two… perhaps even a page or two).  What this review then will concern itself with is the quality of said representation, and not the mere existence of it.

Released in April of 2006 and written directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 is the tale of September 11, 2001 with a particular focus on the passengers and crew of United Airlines flight 93.  United 93 is the hijacked flight which crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA on that morning following an attempt by the passengers to regain control of the aircraft.  Greengrass has long favored a documentary-esque style and his use of that style in this film makes the based-on-real-events tale even more real.  While certainly dramatized at moments, the creators of the film made it take place (from takeoff) in real time and based upon the recordings and other known facts available. 

As stated, the film doesn’t solely examine the United flight – it is the only plane we get to see inside of, but the piece spends a significant amount of time at air traffic control offices, the FAA, and NORAD.  In fact, many of those sequences feature actual individuals who were present at those places on September 11 playing themselves.  Perhaps most notable among these is Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations Manager. 

It is not then, strictly speaking, a movie where it is always easy to judge the quality of the acting (although notable actors like Christian Clemenson, David Rasche, and others turn in good work).  But, judging the movie at all based upon the acting is to miss something essential about it all, at least it is at the present time. 

In fact, the problem is larger than that.  At this moment in time we lack distance from the events depicted, and more so than we might otherwise as the 10th anniversary just occurred. 

I am not—I promised I wouldn’t—suggesting that the film ought not have been made, I’m suggesting that it can’t be examined in the same way one might any other film.  For instance, it would be foolish the suggest that it’s poorly plotted and that the members of Flight 93 ought to have bum-rushed the cockpit 20 minutes before they did; it’s lunacy to say that the terrorists ought to have stopped the phone calls the passengers were making.   If you were looking at the movie as a piece of fiction, those may be valid points, but they don’t work here. 

No, United 93 has to be dealt with on a somewhat different level than all that.  One question that has to be asked is whether or not the film is able to make you care more than you otherwise do/would.  Is Greengrass capable of ratcheting up the tension despite your being well aware of the outcome?  The answer here is an unequivocal yes – United 93 it is a technically (and in other ways) well-made movie.   The handheld style, the editing, and the juxtaposition of the various story threads is handled with something more than proficiency.  Greengrass conveys the sense of fear, terror, and utter bewilderment at what is taking place with a great deal of finesse.  To some extent the movie is—it has to be—a lamentation about what occurred, but it never wallows.  I am sure that many individuals watching the film shed tears, but they’re shed based upon the events and not because Greengrass milks it.  United 93 is a film which works not solely due to our lack of distance from the events, but because it is engaging on its own.

As if it was required, the  quality of the Blu-ray release does a great job of further engulfing you in the events of the day.  The print is loaded with detail, be it in output of someone’s radar, the camo on an army officer, or the seats on board the plane.   Rather than going for hyper-real look with jarring, jolting, colors the palette is somewhat subdued, and the there is a decent amount of (purposeful) grain.  And, as if you needed it, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack will place you squarely aboard the flight with its use of the surrounds.  The soundtrack also helps the varying locations all feel different.  It is, in short, a beautiful presentation of a great film depicting something utterly horrific.

The extras are, most definitely, a mixed bag.  On the plus side are a feature commentary track by Greengrass as well as featurettes on the Flight 93 memorial, some of the families of passengers on the plane, and the people who were following the flights elsewhere on that day.   All of these provide incredibly interesting pieces of information about the filming and the real-life events, many out there will particularly like the piece on the families of those who lost someone on Flight 93 (we’re told that all the families were consulted in the making of the movie).  There are also “Memorial Pages” which have a picture and a few paragraphs on the people who were actually on the flight.  Far worse is the inclusion of a trailer for a documentary about two brothers who responded to the World Trade Center on 9/11 – it isn’t that the documentary isn’t good (I haven’t seen it and am not qualified to judge), but it has this incredible advertisement feel to it which cheapens both United 93 and the documentary itself.

I am not going to tell you that United 93 is a movie that you have to see–that you have to own–and I’m not going to say that it is a movie that had to be made.  What I will say is this – if one was going to make a movie about September 11, this was the movie to make.  It is not an easy movie to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good one. 

If only it didn’t feel like any incredibly cynical, sales-oriented move to release the Blu-ray the week before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (it came out the Tuesday before the anniversary), I would feel much better about appreciating the film as much as I do.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.